Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Three Circumstances of Tantrums

We all delight in our children growing their vocabularies. For us it started with "ball" and "daddy/doggy," and has progressed to about 50 terms and phrases by now I would guess.

A toddler communicating using real live words is one of the most exciting milestones ever.  Penny's sweet little voice saying "Puffs, please" or "Night night, Mama" or "Hey! Apollo!" is about the sweetest sound I've ever heard. She wakes up in the mornings talking about her family members and telling secrets to her baby doll.  I love it.

Then there's NO, the one word that every mom dreads for their child to learn.  We've got this one in our house too now.  No.  Or "nope" as Penny says it.  Or sometimes "Nuh now" with a dramatic head shake if she really wants to emphasize her will.

As her vocabulary grows, so does her realization that she likes and doesn't like certain things.  And her desire to communicate what she wants and doesn't want.  As her opinion grows... so do the outbursts of frustration called [dundundun] tantrums.

Tantrums can present themselves all sorts of ways.  So far, we've only had the crying and throwing-oneself-on-the-floor-to-lay-down-while-crying kinds of tantrums... but I know that there are others. Leg kicking, door slamming, toy throwing, screaming, it's all coming.  She's still got 2.5 years left of being a toddler.

In the interest of being proactive, I've been talking to other moms, and trying to be very observant of my child and others in what sets off a tantrum.  I've come to the conclusion that there are really very few things that cause tantrums, some of which are kind of manageable.

I'm so mad I'm so mad I'm so mad!

The Three Circumstances of Tantrums

I'm no expert, but it is my experience that Penelope (and maybe all young toddlers?) gets fussy under only three circumstances:  she wants something she cannot have, she's attempting to communicate with us but we aren't getting it, or one of her physical needs is not being met.

1. They want something that they cannot have.  
We all get a little perturbed when our will is not the way, older kids and adults just know how to manage their outward reactions.  To me, this is the one circumstance of tantrums that generates normal, to-be-expected, acceptable tantrums.  It's just a rite of passage.  These little ones haven't learned how to cope with disappointment and frustration that comes with not getting what they want.  Getting upset is very natural.  These are teaching moments to be embraced.  Or at least endured.

We turned again to Dr. Harvey Karp for ideas on how to mitigate Penny's tantrums by watching his video The Happiest Toddler on the Block.  If the terms caveman ambassador, fast food theory and feed the meter ring a bell, you know exactly what I'm talking about.   Albeit kind of cheesy, we've found the techniques in the video (also a book) to be immediately affective in dealing with Penny's moments of outburst.  And I love that it gave Dan and I a common strategy and consistent parenting.  It's available on Netflix (DVD) or you can order it on Amazon.

2. They are trying to communicate something and the message just isn't being received.   
When a toddler wants to tell you something, they are going to desperately spit out all the gibberish and gestures that they know until they accomplish something.  

If the message doesn't make it through to us grownups, it's usually for one of three reasons:  
1. worst: we notice, but choose to ignore their communication completely, or at least temporarily  
2. often: we are oblivious of their communication to begin with (toddler communication can be so subtle when they first try to tell us something, before it escalates)
3. best case scenario: we try and try to understand them with equivalent effort and desperation, but we fail miserably.  

Regardless of the reason, it's very  upsetting to toddlers for them to give all they've got trying communicate with us, with no return.  It's devastating.  Imagine you're walking the streets in a foreign country and you don't speak the language and you really really really have to pee, but most people you come across don't acknowledge you, and if they do, they shrug that they don't speak English. And all the doors to public places are locked.  And there are fountains everywhere making flowing water noises. And you can't read any of the signs. Devastating!

I think the only way to alleviate and prevent toddler frustration in this category is this:  
Pay Attention To Your Kid. All The Time.   

Moms and Dads: this is our job.

I'm not talking about helicopter parenting (ew.)  I'm talking about thorough, responsible parenting.  Paying attention might mean putting my phone down in the middle of an important text message to give Penny eye contact and my undivided attention.  Or interrupting my friend's story from across the lunch table; "Sorry, just one sec," so I can respond to the soft "Mama help, p'ease" coming from the high chair next to me, the FIRST time, to reward Penny for 'using her words' politely.

Paying attention means that even when we are busy with something else, we still subliminally have our finger on the pulse of what our littlest ones are up to.  If I'm in the laundry room switching a load and Penny is playing in her playroom around the corner by herself, you bet my ears are constantly listening for cues and communication.  When we're on the [parenting] job, we don't get to tune out. 

The exciting news is that paying better attention to your kid also means you are more likely to understand them when it really matters.  If anyone can speak my toddler's language, it should be me.  This might seem like a no-brainer, but with everything else going on in our lives, it is very easy to miss things (like how she's saying "gate" not "K" -- or "help" not "Hope") if we aren't paying attention on purpose.

3. Physically, something's off.  
They're tired.  They're hungry/thirsty.  They're uncomfortable or something hurts.  
All bets are off for teaching patience and politeness to your toddler if any of the above are true.  

Sometimes Dan and I take too much advantage of the fact that Penny stays up late (usually to bed between 9 and 10pm).  If we are over at someone's for dinner, Penny usually plays pretty contently well past dessert, affording us more conversation time than most parents of toddlers could claim.  But if we drag it out too long, and Penny hits a wall and gets too tired, we pay the price when we get home, and have a stubborn and fussy toddler all throughout the delayed bedtime.  Is Penny at fault for not telling us that she was on the verge of getting tired half an hour before we actually left?  Please.  Who's the grownup here.  

As parents we should anticipate and meet our little toddlers' physical needs before we have a situation on our hands.  Isn't that why every single one of you reading this always has two snack options permanently packed in your purse or diaper bag?

And when things come up like teething and tummy aches, we just need to give extra cuddles and accept our sad and grumpy babes for who they are.

a sad and grumpy babe indeed, working on some canine teeth.

These three circumstances, that's it.  If I can eliminate some tantrums by managing her physical needs and paying better attention to her, that means I only have to deal with the rite of passage tantrums.  And those I can write off as teaching moments.  I'll take it.

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